Part of The Oscar Experience, a regular series exploring the key movies and factors at play during Academy Awards season.
“Maybe you could tell me what you think is going on here. And please, speak as you might to a small child or a golden retriever.”
At the halfway mark of J.C. Chandor’s debut feature Margin Call, an executive played by Oscar winner Jeremy Irons loses patience with the complicated propulsion metrics talk that surrounds an impending financial apocalypse for his firm. With his familiar drily clipped voice and upper crust menace, he commands a young analyst (Zachary Quinto) with the words quoted above. Technically he’s insulting his own intelligence (“It wasn’t brains that got me here”) but he’s also showing everyone who is boss. It’s also a bit subversive since this is basically a member of “The 1%” playing audience surrogate for “The 99%”; most moviegoers won’t understand the abstract math of Wall Street or propulsion metrics, either.
This isn’t the first time or the last time in the film that someone will admonish a scene partner to “Speak in English!” It gets you thinking about how much exposition audiences have come to expect and even need in an Oscar-caliber movie.
Margin Call’s dark night of Wall Street’s soul (or lack thereof) is often riveting, but is it really a better film than Martha Marcy May Marlene, which lost to Margin Call in “First Feature” prizes at both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review (NBR) awards? I’d say emphatically not, but then no one in Martha Marcy May Marlene is doing much in the way of speaking to the audience as small children or dogs.
Detractors will tell you that Martha Marcy May Marlene is too withholding and too vague, but isn’t half of its unsettling power sprung from the vacuum at its center: Martha, whose sense of identity has been ransacked? And even if you agree with me about the film’s artistic success, could that also be what’s damaging its dreams of golden statues? Even Elizabeth Olsen, who’s been lauded as the multi-name heroine, has lost the “Breakthrough Actor” prizes she’s been up for thus far (Gotham, NBR) thus far. They were both won by Felicity Jones, who has a much easier, more accessible and story-driven role to play in the post-collegiate romantic drama Like Crazy.
Should movies be speaking to us in plain English if they’d like to win prizes? Herewith, I present The Uggiemeter. On one side of this chart are the movies even a small child or dog could understand; on the other are movies which might require more visual literacy and imagination from moviegoers and Oscar voters to fully embrace them. To show how understandable they are to dogs and children, I’ve assigned each an “Uggie” rating, named after the most appealing character in one of this year’s most accessible films, The Artist.
I’ve placed Shame right smack dab in the middle (Michael Fassbender goes both ways!) as simultaneously it is thunderously obvious in theme and coyly withholding in narrative details. This could account for the movie’s divisiveness within both sets of audiences, those who like their movies obvious and those who like to fill in the blanks.
I personally love Shame for refusing to give us backstory. A lesser film — by which I mean 85% of the movies released this year — would make sure you got the full scoop about what exactly happened to Brandon (Fassbender) and Sissy (Carey Mulligan) when they were kids. From a box office and awards standpoint this tireless exposition does make sense. Consider this fact: at every Q&A following a movie with an ambiguous ending or detail you will hear at least one question which asks the Q&A participants to solve the mystery for the crowd. I was particularly disheartened when this happened after a screening of A Separation (which is building steam as a frontrunner for the foreign film Oscar). The film is a remarkable achievement in part because of its acknowledgement that “facts” aren’t everything and personal perspective matters. The ending is pitch perfect. To have anything else explained would be a horrible derailment of the film’s cumulative and communal power.
But will Oscar voters agree, or will they seek out films which give them all the answers? The past several years of Oscar winners aren’t too revealing on this matter
2010: The King’s Speech – Holds your hand throughout.
2009: The Hurt Locker – Bracing action scenes, but leaves a lot of what’s troubling unspoken.
2008: Slumdog Millionaire – A small child in Mumbai or a golden retriever in Missouri could understand it.
2007: No Country for Old Men – A linear narrative with pit stops to peer into the unknowable abyss.
2006: The Departed – Keeps you guessing but eventually fills you in.
2005: Crash – Speaking of speaking your themes aloud… let’s do it in every scene!
It’s true that not every ending should leave you hanging and not every character should contain mysteries. Movies need to be true to themselves first of all and for some movies, straightforward, easily digested, closed narratives are the way to go. But personal taste matters in awards season; how well the more mysterious films fare will depend on whether or not voters enjoy their narratives presented like porous surfaces.
Personally, I need to find my own way in, to wonder, to fantasize about what’s happening just outside the frame, or what’s gone on before and after the credits roll. But some critics who normally swing this way still find Shame and Martha Marcy May Marlene too vague. So to each movie and moviegoer its own blend of exposition and mystery!
How much exposition and backstory is too much for you and which movies do you think get the balance of information just right? And can you think of any Oscar-winning examples outside of No Country For Old Men which suggest tolerance for the impenetrable or ambiguous narrative?
Nathaniel Rogers is the creator of TheFilmExperience.net, a popular web destination for actress enthusiasts, Oscar obsessives and people who believe in cinema beyond the latest blockbuster. He works as a freelance writer in New York City.